Aside from nasty weather, what’s the biggest story in the big leagues to date? It’s a tough call. Shohei Ohtani and the surging Los Angeles Angels? The red-hot Boston Red Sox? The amazin’ New York Mets? A case could be made for any of the three first-place teams – and it’s interesting to note that there’s a Mississippi connection on each club. Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart has had an impact as a newcomer with the 13-3 Angels, batting .273 with two homers and seven RBIs. In Boston (13-2), which travels to Anaheim for a three-game set beginning Tuesday, former Mississippi State star Mitch Moreland is batting .292 in his sporadic calls to duty. And ex-UM star Drew Pomeranz should be joining the Red Sox rotation soon. The Mets, managed by former Ole Miss pitcher Mickey Callaway, have the best ERA in the majors and the best record (12-2) in the National League. They host NL East rival Washington in a big series starting tonight. For the record, the other first-place teams also have Mississippi ties: Southern Miss product Brian Dozier (.289, four homers) and Ole Miss’ Lance Lynn (0-1, 5.00 ERA) with Minnesota; Meridian Community College alum Corey Dickerson (.358, 12 RBIs) and ex-State star Adam Frazier (.250) with Pittsburgh (where Clint Hurdle is the manager); and Southwest CC product Jarrod Dyson (.176) with Arizona.
During the broadcast of Shohei Ohtani’s MLB pitching debut today on MLB Network, it was noted that only three players in big league history have produced both a 10-win season and a 10-home run season at some point in their career. Ohtani, whom the Los Angeles Angels plan to use as both a DH and a starting pitcher, did it in the same season twice in Japan. The great Babe Ruth did both in 1918, when he was with the Boston Red Sox, going 13-7 on the mound and hitting 11 homers, the first of 17 straight double-digit homer seasons. Rick Ankiel, who broke in as a pitcher and converted to the outfield, did it during his career (1999-2013) but not in the same season. The only other player to achieve this impressive feat was Jackson native Ewell Albert “Reb” Russell, who played in the early 1900s. Russell, a left-hander, won 23 games as a rookie for the Chicago White Sox in 1913 and posted three other double-digit win seasons before hurting his arm in 1918. He spent some time in the minors, came back to the big leagues in 1922 with Pittsburgh and belted 12 homers in 60 games. He hit nine more the next year in what was his final fling in the majors.
Star power abounds on the Los Angeles Angels’ roster. Mike Trout. Albert Pujols. Justin Upton. Shohei Ohtani (well, maybe). Into this galaxy comes Zack Cozart, the Ole Miss alum who arrived as a free agent in the off-season with a little brilliance of his own. An All-Star in Cincinnati, where he enjoyed a career year in 2017, Cozart will debut for the Angels today in Oakland, playing not just for a new team but at a new position. A shortstop virtually all of his baseball life, Cozart, at age 32, takes over at third base for the Angels. His situation is one of the most compelling storylines to watch among Mississippians in the majors in 2018. Cozart, who hit .297 with 24 homers last year, swung the bat well in the spring (.347, four homers). He wasn’t tested much in the field, handling just 15 chances (with one error) in 16 games. The Angels are projected by many to be a playoff team; their new third baseman could be a big factor in that quest. P.S. The A’s scheduled starter is Kendall Graveman, the former Mississippi State standout who went 6-4 with a 4.19 ERA in an injury-interrupted 2017 season. … Pittsburgh’s lineup at Detroit will include State product Adam Frazier leading off as the DH and Meridian Community College product Corey Dickerson playing left field and batting fifth in his Pirates debut. The game will be the first as Tigers manager for Ron Gardenhire, the former Jackson Mets infielder and ex-Minnesota skipper. … Also making a debut today will be ex-UM star Mickey Callaway, the longtime Cleveland pitching coach now managing the New York Mets, who open at CitiField against St. Louis. The Big Apple is not the place where you want to get off on the wrong foot. … MSU product Jacob Lindgren has undergone a second Tommy John procedure and will miss the 2018 season. Now in Atlanta’s organization, left-hander Lindgren missed all of 2017 and most of 2016 after making the big leagues with the New York Yankees in 2015.
Though it was widely assumed that Andrew McCutchen would take over in center field this season for San Francisco, it is being reported by ESPN that the Giants are interested in signing free agent Mississippian Jarrod Dyson and bumping the newly acquired McCutchen to a corner spot. Former Southwest Mississippi Community College standout Dyson is an outstanding defender who batted .251 with 28 steals for Seattle in 2017. … Having gone four years without a postseason at-bat in Cincinnati, Zack Cozart surely improved his chances of a 2018 playoff appearance by signing with the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent last month. As the Ole Miss product tells it (to mlb.com), “It’s tough to beat playing with Joey Votto, but now I’m going to the Angels and probably the best player in the world (Mike Trout) is on the team, and I played against Albert (Pujols) early on when he was on the Cardinals, so I know how good he can be.” Cozart will join fellow newcomers Shohei Ohtani and Ian Kinsler on a loaded Angels club that could challenge Houston in the American League West. … Drew Pomeranz, the former Ole Miss standout who won 17 games for Boston in 2017, avoided arbitration by agreeing to a 1-year, $8.5 million contract last week. Also signing pre-arbitration deals were former Taylorsville High star Billy Hamilton ($4.6M with Cincinnati) and Meridian Community College product Corey Dickerson ($5.9M with Tampa Bay). … Ex-Mississippi State standout Kendall Graveman has yet to reach an agreement with Oakland; he asked for $2.6M, the team offered $2.36M. … Columbia High product Ti’Quan Forbes is among a group of Chicago White Sox hitters gathered in Arizona this week for a mini-camp. Forbes, a second-round pick by Texas in 2014, was acquired by the ChiSox in a trade last summer. A 21-year-old third baseman/shortstop, Forbes is batting .242 for his pro career but hit 11 home runs in A-ball last season. … Worth noting (and reading): mlbtraderumors.com is now publishing installments of Tim Dillard’s “The Inner Monologue of @DimTillard.” The former Itawamba Community College star and onetime big leaguer, who is still an active pitcher in Milwaukee’s minor league system, is quite the entertaining fellow, as you’ll find from reading his posts. The hidden twinkies story is classic.
On Dec. 15, the Los Angeles Angels formally announced the signing of free agent Zack Cozart, the Ole Miss alumnus, to be their third baseman. Three days later, Boston announced that it was re-signing Mitch Moreland, the ex-Mississippi State standout, to play first base. Since then, there’s been nothing concrete on any of the bundle of other Mississippians looking for a 2018 team. Rumors have connected Lance Lynn to several teams, but as of today the former UM right-hander remains on the free agent market. Same for fellow former Rebels star Seth Smith and McComb native Jarrod Dyson, both outfielders and both coming off fairly productive seasons. Lynn, in particular, would seem to be an attractive piece. He is 72-47 with a 3.18 ERA for his career and has averaged 32 starts a year since 2013, excluding 2016, when he was out with Tommy John surgery. He was 11-8, 3.43 at age 30 last season for St. Louis. Quite a few big-name free agents are also still out there, and once a couple of them sign, the rush could be on. For now, we wait. … David Goforth, another Ole Miss product, signed a minor league contract with Washington in early December, and there are several other state-connected players seeking similar deals. Included are Tyler Moore, Alex Presley, Chris Coghlan, T.J. House, Scott Copeland, Louis Coleman and Joey Butler.
OK, so Dansby Swanson is hitting again. The Atlanta shortstop went 2-for-3 on Saturday and, as The Associated Press dutifully reports, is batting .400 over his last 40 at-bats. But is this just an anomaly? Remember, the ex-Mississippi Braves star hit .302 in 129 MLB at-bats at the end of 2016. He was handed the starting shortstop job to start this season and struggled mightily, so much so that he was sent to the minors in late July. He was only recalled because Johan Camargo, who was playing very well, got hurt. For the year, Swanson is batting .227 with six homers and 42 RBIs. We have seen 13 M-Braves shortstops pass through Trustmark Park these last 13 years on their way to the big leagues, from Luis Hernandez (2005) to Ozzie Albies (2016). The best of the bunch, without question, is Andrelton Simmons, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in the fall of 2015. Think the Braves’ brass has any seller’s remorse at this point? They should. Simmons is, of course, a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player who has become an offensive force. He blasted a game-winning homer for the Angels on Saturday, his 14th of the year. He is batting .289 (.342 on-base percentage) with 31 doubles, 60 RBIs and 66 runs for a playoff contender. The players Atlanta got from the Angels in the Simmons trade? Erick Aybar, a veteran shortstop, and prospect pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Swanson hadn’t been acquired from Arizona when the Braves made that deal; Albies, who has since moved to second base, was seen as the shortstop of the future. Aybar was a total flop in his short time in Atlanta, and Ole Miss alum Ellis was shipped out in another trade. Newcomb, the prize of the deal, is 2-7 with a 4.36 ERA for the Braves this season. Swanson, a former No. 1 overall pick, may yet prove to be a solid big league shortstop. But it doesn’t appear that he’ll ever surpass Simmons.
Wade Wass first commanded attention at Meridian Community College, where the Florida native crushed 34 homers and hit .400 over two seasons (2011 and ’12). After two unspectacular years at Alabama, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Angels in the summer of 2014. After two seasons in pro ball, the burly catcher (6 feet, 210 pounds) is commanding attention again. Wass has earned a non-roster invitation to the Angels’ big league camp. Scout.com has labeled Wass as “someone the Angels will be forced to take notice of” after a 2015 season that saw him hit .261 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs at two levels of A-ball. He also is reported to have made big strides defensively. Joining Wass as an invitee in the Angels’ Arizona camp will be former Ole Miss star Alex Yarbrough, a second baseman who had a disappointing 2015 season at Triple-A Salt Lake (see previous posts). P.S. A.J. Brown, the two-sport star from Starkville High, has signed with Ole Miss as a wide receiver. Brown, also a center fielder, could be a pro baseball draftee in June. He is one of only two players to ever participate in Under Armour All-America Games for both football and baseball.